The title of “living legend” is bestowed far too easily in the music world, but if there ever was a man who deserved such honor it’s undoubtedly Chuck D. As the leader and founder of the ground-breaking rap group Public Enemy, he’s been a pioneer in both music and social activism. A likely candidate for next year’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, having been responsible for of some of music’s most important albums, like Fear of a Black Planet and It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, as well as anthems like “Fight the Power” and “Bring the Noise,” Chuck D has come to represent everything that’s great about art — passion, integrity, courage and controversy. We sat down with the “Hard Rhymer” for a lengthy and insightful conversation about the state of hip-hop, the struggles facing independent artists, his upcoming concert to support the Occupy Skid Row movement and, if you can believe it, his current hometown of Ventura.
VCReporter: Let’s get right to it. How does a hip-hop legend from the East Coast end up living in Ventura, California?
Chuck D: ’Cause I’m a citizen of the world, and after going to 78 countries all over the world, every place is every place, everything is everything. But (laughs) my wife happens to be from California and my latest child was born in California. So that makes sense, too.
How long have you lived in Ventura?
Long enough. (Laughs.) Long enough to know everywhere to go. I’m in other parts of the country also [that are located] 40 to 50 miles out from the main city. So I’m not really L.A. I’m not really New York, I’m from Long Island; and I’m not really Atlanta, I’m in Fayetteville, down in the cut. To be away from the city but have access to the city, I’m really lucky to do so. Santa Barbara and Ventura is like, to me, the South of France. It’s the closest thing you’re gonna get to the South of France in the United States.
Did you ever envision yourself living on the West Coast? You and Public Enemy are so identified with New York.
Well, it’s unfair to classify me as New York. I was raised in New York for the first 25 years of my life, coming from Long Island, but I didn’t know where I lived exactly. Once you become a world traveler as I did 25 years ago, you’re not really categorized anymore as being from one place. If anything, you’re a world mutt. Did I ever see myself living on the West Coast? I like everywhere I live or I wouldn’t live there. My wife makes everything possible, and Ventura and Santa Barbara made everything possible. I never could see myself living in L.A.; so that’s why it never happened. Also, there’s everything California has to offer as a state. I’ve driven up the coast many times. San Luis Obispo. Monterey. The Bay area. Beyond the Bay area. Along the 5. Along the 99. I’m a world explorer. I’m the closest thing in my genre of music to Johnny Cash but Johnny Cash was the man in black; I’m the black-ened man.
Does all that stem from the fact that Public Enemy was one of the first rap groups to really explore international touring?
We’re the first group that scoured the earth at a consistent basis. We built our fan base everywhere outside the United States and not in the United States and then it caught on here.
I always found it strange that the first country to really embrace you was the UK.
Yeah. We put it all on our second album. It’s right there at the beginning of the album. Welcome, London. It was like pandemonium, and that was shocking to everybody here in the United States who didn’t think rap was anywhere. It’s stupid when people ask me in the new millennium, “So what do you think about international rap?” and I’m saying, like, “Shit, our second album told you it was international.” It’s just like when they ask you, “What do you think about white kids doing rap?” Well, the Beastie Boys kinda put us on. (Laughs). Also, salute to them for being elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It wouldn’t be possible for us if it wasn’t for Run-DMC and the Beastie Boys.
Speaking of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, do you think you’ll be the next rap artist inducted?
That’s not for me to say.
That’s a very political answer.
I’m the closest they find in hip-hop, me and Questlove, that could tell you just as much about Jerry Lee Lewis as [as I can tell you about] Raekwon from the Wu-Tang Clan, and that usually is not a given. So it would be an honor to me ’cause I grew up as a sports fan. So the Hall of Fame is very important. If I’m talking baseball, you know, Cooperstown, or Springfield in the NBA, or Canton in the NFL, but I’m in music so the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is very important.
Matthew Hill Photograpy ©2012
Think there’ll ever be a Hip-Hop Hall of Fame?
I would like to see a Hip-Hop Hall of Fame but the biggest thing I’ve waited for and been proactive about is helping hip-hop be seriously looked upon as an infrastructure amongst its own to take care of itself. It’s been treated like bullshit from within and bullshit from the outside. It’s treated as a hustle. To me, it’s craft. I’m envious when I come into places like Salzer’s and see T-shirts like The Who and Pink Floyd. I mean, they have a Wu-Tang shirt ’cause people think it’s the thing of the moment but, I mean, we’ve had the most prodigious logo around the earth, hip-hopwise, and we need company. So Wu-Tang is company, Run-DMC, Beasties — we look for the company of our peers to make our genre strong as far as a craft, not as this thing that’s trendy. “Oh, it’s hot,” so it made the pop charts because it’s dysfunctional. That’s bullshit to me. They rely on rap music and hip-hop to break through the mainstream only because it’s so dysfunctional that it’s shocking. I’m not into to that. Either you fucking get down or you don’t.
In the mid ’90s, when more materialistic and violent messages started to take over rap music commercially, did you see that coming?
Yeah. It usually comes with commerce. When things become a business you can expect a lot of contriving after that. That’s what happens. People were like, “All right, you know about gangsta life so make a whole gangsta album,” or someone else says, “I got to keep it real,” so they make nine-tenths out of a record all about the stark reality. At least back then in the day, people would leave one record for the good of the hood, so to speak, and that began to change in the mid ’90s.
But those artists grew up on you. Was it strange to see something you helped create turn so negative?
No. No. Everybody gotta tell their story. It’s like sports, man. You can’t have the running back keep on running after the flag is thrown down. (Laughs.) You know what I’m saying. It’s like, “Dude, wow, that’s a violation because you’re violating the game for someone else to come in and do the right thing.” The bottom line is, music is about entertainment but does it stop there? You made your song and you made your video, now get in front of the people. That was the biggest prevention, ’cause once they got in front of the people, could they really be their true self or did they have to put on a mask? That’s the bottom line. When you perform, you got to be yourself, you got to cut through some of the rough edges. You got to be honest.
So you’re saying some of the lines of reality of who those artists really were versus what they were saying became blurred?
Yeah. Yeah. Pretty much. A lot of people were forced to keep on doing what they were doing to keep their record contracts by the mid ’90s. (Pause.) I remember Biggie and Pac being two guys who were caught up with real people who were really into things that had short life expectancies. These guys were musicians. These guys were artists. You know? The day that you see Justin Bieber go after Justin Timberlake with an AK-47, then you know that the shit is crazy.
How hard was that for you to see the deaths of people who looked up to you and you obviously influenced, like Tupac?
It was disturbing. We made a record called “Don’t Believe the Hype,” knowing that hype has a lot of appendages to it that can sweep you from your reality. If you don’t have a sense of your realities, hype will take over and consume you. We live in those times now. What is it? Is it the reality or the fantasy? I mean, what does Kim Kardashian do? The other day I was in Vegas, and me and Flava [Public Enemy’s Flavor Flav] were having our fiscal year meeting and they had this gigantic billboard saying that Kim Kardashian is gonna be at this club in Vegas and I’m like, “What the fuck is she gonna do? Stand there?” How far away are we from, “We have Jimmy Hendrix’s ashes sitting over there in that urn! Come! Be there!” (Laughs). It’s like, what the fuck?
Matthew Hill Photograpy ©2012
You’re very in touch with the underground and you’re vocal about supporting local artists. I’d say more so than any other artist who is, well, I don’t wanna say it but …
I can say it. More than anybody at my level, no one plays local artists and boosts them like I do. One of the biggest travesties done to hip-hop, and actually for all artists and all genres, is artists not being able to thrive in their local area with their local support system boosting them over anybody from the outside. Local radio, you might call it urban radio, whatever the fuck that is, has never supported artists from its area.
Ventura could be a model for that example.
That’s the biggest problem with arts in the United States. United States has the best highway system, the best systems of support and commodities alongside vast miles of travel; but if an artist can’t live and make a living in his own area, it’s a fucking wreck. Because even now, in the days of the Internet, if you have something jump off in Tampa, Florida, but you’re in California, how the fuck you gonna get there? The price of getting there alone is too much.
You’ve been an activist for a host of causes over the years, but recently you’ve been involved in — not so much the Occupy Wall Street and various cities movement — but the Occupy Skid Row movement.
I respect the Occupy movement because it’s paying attention to issues that have now been thrust upon Americans, but where I come from these issues have been kicking black America’s ass. Skid Row, which is downtown L.A., which is within walking distance of the unbelievable Staples Center, has the largest concentration of homeless people in America. So many people come through Los Angeles and they do not even have any idea. These people are invisible. The largest percentage of those homeless people are black people, by racial statistics. Why is this so invisible in America? In the shadows of an area that always gets glorified.
So when the Occupy movements, Occupy Wall Street, Occupy L.A. came along and people that have lost their jobs, lost their homes, having mortgage issues, Occupy Skid Row is like saying, “Look over your shoulder and see what’s already been here.” At its worst, the largest concentration of homeless people in the world is in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The second is Downtown Los Angeles. Everybody can go check it out before they go to a Lakers game. They can take a tour. It’s five fucking minutes away. So Public Enemy plans, in our 25th year, to make a statement across the world by saying, “Yes, we are Occupy Skid Row.” This is the next step that happens when people are really down and out.
When America has a recession, black America has a depression. When America hits depression, then you have a group of people based on their visual characteristics who are in total desperation. We plan to do a free concert Jan. 15 and have other peers in our rap community come down to perform for the people. Feed the people, their minds, body and souls, and hopefully attract attention to make this invisible situation visible.
How did the idea for a free concert in Skid Row come about?
Well, my wife and I, Dr. Gaye Theresa Johnson — she’s a professor at the University of Santa Barbara —we had been involved with this book that looked into that whole area of Skid Row, and I’ve worked with the organization Los Angeles Community Action Network. A lot of people have worked on this problem and that area, but it’s still under wraps. So we spent a day or two talking and working with people that are homeless, and I said I got to make a statement. Hip-hop has to make a statement. I said I have to drag hip-hop down here. Because when people look at hip-hop, they look at hip-hop from the dirtiest of window panes. I got good friends like Bono, and they’re always in the middle of important things. We’ve always done important things worldwide but I felt this is a statement that marks our 25th year. I told my guys, I said, “You know what? We have a moral obligation down there. Yeah, we’ll play the concert, gonna be poets, gonna be speakers.” It’s on short notice but that’s on purpose. We don’t want the gigantic swell of all of Southern California knowing this free concert is going down. The meaning has to be intact, and we will continue to let the word build so whoever comes down that day is there for the right reasons. To get this off the ground, to make a concise statement, we cannot have Skid Row be obscured. Occupy Skid Row is peaceful protest of power, and hip-hop trying to make the situation better.
You’ve a had career where you’ve been leading the way for positive changes in your genre for everything from songwriting and recording to record labels to the Internet to ground-breaking collaborations with other artists to social activism. What’s the secret?
It’s simple. You gotta know yourself. If you know yourself, you know where you come from and you’ll know where you’re going, which is really the Public Enemy story. Know who you are. Respect your past. Respect your history. Respect your fellow human beings and become as one. The most important thing for any artist is to know who they are. You gotta live your life; you can’t let life live you.
Chuck D takes over Ventura this Saturday, Jan. 14, when he visits Salzer’s Records for a free in-store signing at 4 p.m. and then performs that night with Public Enemy at the Ventura Theater. For more information on those events visit www.salzers.com and www.venturamtheater.net.
For more information on Chuck D, visit his multiple sites www.publicenemy.com, www.twitter.com/mrchuckd, www.hiphopgods.com, www.rapstation.com and www.shemovement.com. For more information on Occupy Skid Row Event taking place on Sunday, Jan. 15, visit www.cangress.wordpress.com